Perhaps due to the fact that we were all at least a little bit convinced that the world was going to end in Y2K, the last few years of the 20th century were responsible for churning out one ridiculous disaster movie after another, and audiences flocked to theaters to see them. We watched Will Smith save us from aliens and Bill Paxton save us from tornadoes and Pierce Brosnan save us from volcanoes. We watched cities get obliterated by meteors and tsunamis and lava. We watched Elijah Wood try to stop the Earth from being destroyed by a meteor, and then, a month later, we happily watched Bruce Willis attempt the exact same thing.
Even after the millennium quietly ticked over and we gradually realized that the gallons of bottled water and overflowing shelves of apocalypse rations in our basements were proooooobably not going to be necessary after all, Hollywood still squeaked out a few more big-budget apocalypse blockbusters. 2003 saw Hillary Swank tunneling to the Earth’s core and 2004 had Jake Gyllenhaal facing off against extreme climate change, but by 2009, when John Cusack went toe to toe with the Mayan Calendar, what was once a torrential flood of disaster movies had slowed to a trickle.
Which was a shame, because Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson wouldn’t truly hit his stride as an action mega-star until a few years later, when the Fast and the Furious franchise hard-pivoted from a series of films about street racing and light crime to deciding that, henceforth, they would be heist movies. Johnson’s character was introduced in Fast Five as the film’s antagonist, but even by the end of that movie, it was clear that the franchise understood the potential gold mine they had in The Rock. By the time Fast & Furious 6 rolled around, they’d reinvented him, too, with a script that allowed him to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with Dominic Toretto and his crew instead of head-to-head.
Since then, Johnson has rocketed to the pinnacle of Hollywood’s A-list, nabbing the top spot on the list of the world’s highest-paid actors in 2016. He’s the kind of movie star we don’t see much of anymore, one who can pack a theater on the basis of his name alone, and while I’m sure he gets told ‘no’ on occasion just like the rest of us, and has to stay within-brand, my guess is that as far as action-blockbusters go, he can make pretty much whatever kinds of movies he wants.
And what The Rock wants to make, it would seem, are disaster movies.
Rampage, based loosely on the ’80s arcade game in which players endeavored to destroy a city as either a giant ape, giant wolf, or giant lizard, is the latest entry in what I am determinedly dubbing the Rockpocalypse Genre, following 2015’s larger-than-life earthquake adventure, San Andreas (which I loved a lot).
The plot of Rampage is simple-ish, as long as you don’t confuse ‘simple’ for ‘logical’: following a government ban on “genetic editing,” (fearing it could be used for weapons of mass destruction), an Evil Corporation has secretly been continuing their studies in space. Things inevitably go wrong, and instead of letting the immensely harmful pathogens waft out into the infinite vacuum of space, the company’s Evil Corporate Overlords (a — perhaps unintentionally? — ridiculously over-the-top pair of siblings played by Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy) demand that samples be brought back to earth. Things, again, go wrong, and the samples crash down in Florida, California, and… I want to say Oregon? (it doesn’t matter), infecting the local wildlife.
Johnson plays Davis Okoye, an introverted (heh, sure), ex-military primatologist whose best friend is an affable albino gorilla with an extensive signing vocabulary named George. The relationship between Davis and George is, for better or for worse, the only one in the movie given any real emotional weight, and, no matter how high the stakes climbed, the only one I actually cared about. Unfortunately, George is one of the three (and, inexplicably, only three) animals infected — the other two being a wolf and an alligator — and immediately begins exhibiting signs of rapid, uncontrollable growth and unchecked aggression. With the help of Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), the scientist responsible for some of the earliest advances in genetic editing, and Agent Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a drawling representative of some undisclosed government agency, Okoye sets out to cure George… and, while he’s at it, stop the massive animals from destroying the city of Chicago.
What follows is a predictable carnage-fest, as the monstrosities level city blocks and swat helicopters out of the sky in their single-minded quest to reach the signal that is drawing them like a siren song to the city’s center (because, for some reason, the Evil Corporate Overlords thought that would be a good plan). Buildings are decimated, ferry boats are overturned, and an entire Dave & Buster’s is ripped from its foundations and hurled like a frisbee. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before in a dozen natural disaster and monster movies, but its familiarity doesn’t make it any less fun… if you can ignore the mass casualties that are undoubtedly racking up in the wake of the monsters’ mayhem.
And let’s be real, Rampage definitely wants you to ignore them. Real-world logic is not invited to the Rampage party, and however much you anticipated you’d need to suspend your disbelief based on the trailer, you should probably at least double it. Don’t consider how many people are probably dying horribly with each swish of that nightmare-gator’s tail. Don’t ask how the animals somehow managed to traverse thousands of miles without so much as sideswiping any other major cities, yet can’t seem to help ping-ponging off the buildings of Chicago to ensure maximum destruction before they reach their target. Don’t think about why the villains decide to stay in the building emitting the monster-siren signal with absolutely no plan for dealing with the creatures once they get there. Definitely don’t put any thought into the way the heroes (who are scientists) put every single egg they have into a basket that relies on George going against his established behavior patterns to do something they have absolutely zero reasons for believing he will do (spoiler: he does).
You’d be well within your rights if all this bothered you, I guess. But honestly, if what you want is realism, I’m not sure why you’re seeing Rampage. It’s not like any of the promotional materials ever pretended that this movie was going to be smart.
And that’s okay. Rampage is the kind of narrative that would’ve fit in well in the ’90s, with all the staples of its best-worst disaster films: quippy humor, world-ending stakes, sprawling destruction, reluctant allies, noble sacrifices, logic shaky enough to max out the Richter scale, and a script that manages to deliver genuine moments of heartfelt emotion while never taking itself too seriously.
Through it all, Johnson never fails to deliver his trademark charisma, toughness, and heart, racing from one massive setpiece to another, following the ridiculous turns of the plot with an earnestness that somehow never feels cheesy, a balance that could perhaps only have been struck by the guy who can still be popularly known as ‘The Rock’ while simultaneously convincing a decent number of people that he’d be a totally legit presidential candidate. He’s a kind of leading man the ’90s never really had, not exactly, but one who would’ve fit in well alongside Keanu and Nic and Bruce, back in their heyday.
But Rampage wasn’t made in the ’90s, and while it absolutely draws inspiration from many of that decade’s disaster tentpoles, it’s indisputably a product of the present. The world of Rampage may be one of crazed mutant monsters and rampant destruction, but it is also beautifully diverse; not only are both Johnson and Harris people of color, but so are a decent chunk of the supporting cast and extras. Women are also thoughtfully represented in a variety of professional roles — a scientist, an astronaut, a CEO — a rarity for a genre whose female roles tend to be limited to the wives, girlfriends, and daughters of the heroes. Early on, when a scene of a grown man cowering in fear is played for laughs, the ’90s version probably would’ve had the other characters insulting him using feminine terminology, but even when Rampage is at its dumbest, sexist humor is clearly off the table.
This isn’t to claim that Rampage has much to say about anything, at least, not explicitly. No one is going to point to this movie as a beacon of progressivism or a feminist manifesto. But representation is not only about movies with Something Important to Say. It’s about people from all backgrounds getting to see themselves in every type of story, from kid-centric fantasies, to superhero epics, to horror thrillers, to rom-coms, to — you guessed it — big, dumb disaster blockbusters. Not every movie with a diverse cast needs to address the hardships of marginalization head-on (because, honestly, it is exhausting to only ever watch movies about How Hard It Is To Be The Thing You Are), but that doesn’t mean it’s not sending a message.
Rampage is ridiculous. It’s ridiculous even for people who go in fully braced for ridiculousness. The destruction is extreme, the writing is hokey, the logic is nonexistent, and the performances, while entertaining, are not the highlight of anyone’s career. It is a fun disaster movie, and a fun video game movie, and a fun Movie Starring The Rock, but it’s not likely to top anyone’s list of the best disaster movies of all time (it’s not even the best Rockpocalypse movie; San Andreas, while equally ridiculous, still boasts better characters, more emotion, and a more trackable plot than Rampage).
Still, while Rampage doesn’t take itself even a little bit seriously, it also never sits back and assumes that just because it’s not an important movie, that it’s excused from taking part in the larger conversation of pop culture. Sure, it’s big dumb fun, with about as much substance as the tub of buttery movie theater popcorn I polished off while watching it. But as it embraces its inanity, it also quietly positions itself under the banner that bigger, better, and far more revolutionary films such as Wonder Woman, Black Panther, and Get Out have hung, aligning itself with their messages of equality, inclusivity, and pushing for diverse representation in a genre that has, historically, not seemed to care that much about such things.
Part of me is a little sad that we’ll never know what the Peak Disaster Movie Era would’ve looked like with Dwayne Johnson at the center of it. (Although, who knows, maybe we’re at the forefront of a Disaster Movie Renaissance. If anyone can reinvigorate a genre that’s been mostly dormant for over a decade, it’s The Rock.)
But most of me is happy that the Rockpocalypse is happening now, during a time when an absurdly overblown city-smasher with massive gaps in its logic and an utterly nonsensical premise can both provide mindless escapism and help fill in a bigger picture that’s long been in desperate need of shading.
Is Rampage ever going to be held up as a shining example of Important Cinema? Not in a million years. But it gives me hope when a film like Rampage can still manage to move the needle on representation. Because if Rampage can do it, in all its silly, destructive, inconsequential glory, anyone can.